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E-commerce’s Glow Dims as Stores Grow Aggressive

Extended Thanksgiving hours, advance word of promotions help leverage in-store assets.

E-commerce continues to be a bright spot at retail this holiday, even if it’s not illuminating the retail landscape with the shine it has in previous years.

ComScore Inc.’s most recent tally of e-commerce activity provided a mixed bag of results. ComScore pointed out that the week ended Dec. 14 produced four “billion-dollar days” for Internet sales and brought the total for the holiday season to date to 11, one more than last year’s November-December period in its entirety. Seven of the top 10 e-commerce days ever occurred already during this year’s holiday season, with the remainder taking place during last year’s period.

However, ComScore’s numbers also indicated that e-commerce’s golden age of sales gains — midteen and higher — could be drawing to a close. For the holiday season to date, e-commerce sales have risen 12.6 percent to $33.81 billion from $30.03 billion during the same period last year.

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Sales for the week rose a less impressive 10.7 percent, to $6.99 billion from $6.32 billion, despite the four days of $1 billion or more in online transactions. The strongest day, not surprisingly, was Green Monday, Dec. 10, which saw a 12.5 percent increase to $1.28 billion and took its place, after Cyber Monday, Nov. 26, ($1.47 billion) and Dec. 4 ($1.36 billion), as the third-busiest online sales day in history.

Although just missing what will undoubtedly become the next milestone in online retailing — the $7 billion week — last week’s numbers reduced the season-to-date increase, which stood at 14.4 percent as of Dec. 2 and 12.9 percent on Dec. 10, when seasonal e-commerce action was closing in on $30 billion, at $29.26 billion.

Although at a slowing pace, e-commerce is continuing to wrest market share from stores and has already cemented its status as the standout channel of the holiday season, even as attention turns increasingly to in-store activity with the holiday nearing. The online share of buying visits this season peaked the week ended Dec. 1, which included Cyber Monday, at 23.6 percent, according to The NPD Group’s weekly report on shopping activity, higher than 19 percent in the preceding week or the 21 percent in the week that followed. (Figures for the most recent week are expected to be reported today.)

By comparison, last year the online share rose to 17.3 percent the week of Cyber Monday, from 13.9 percent the prior week, and rose to 17.4 percent the following week.

Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst, considers the lower gains for online to be part of “the natural maturation process of a young, growing business. It’s almost a given.”

“This year,” Cohen told WWD, “for the first time the brick-and-mortar stores did a much better job of developing a strategy and fighting back against online’s gains. They were criticized for extending their hours into Thanksgiving, but they knew how important it was to take a traditional, rather than religious, holiday and commercialize it, as they previously had other nonreligious holidays.”

Building store traffic remains key for stores as they try to catch up in the world of omnichannel retailing. For one, Cohen noted, in-store shoppers are five times more likely to make impulse purchases than online consumers.

He pointed out that stores, which had previously sought to keep news of their big promotions secret until the last minute, have made a point of announcing them, sometimes weeks in advance, in order to build buzz and demand.

During in-person interviews he’s conducted while on his trips through stores and malls, Cohen heard a growing number of complaints from consumers who were shipped the wrong merchandise when buying online or had items gift wrapped without external identification.

“It’s all contributing to making the in-store experience more desirable and forcing online retailers to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

He expects “minimal growth, at best, this holiday,” with overall sales gains of about 3.5 percent and e-commerce roughly three times that level.